A well-measured program of preventive steps can protect your identity from theft.
ID theft-related fraud fell by 12 percent in 2007 and 300,000 fewer adults were victims, according to the latest from Javelin Strategy & Research, the longest-running ID theft study in the nation.
At the top of the list of reasons for the decline is "greater consumer vigilance and awareness," according to the report.
When someone steals your identity, you don't wander around aimlessly like some John or Jane Doe. Someone pilfers enough of your personal identifying information -- name, address, Social Security Number, drivers license, credit and financial account numbers and the like -- then masquerades as you to make purchases, withdraw cash or otherwise undermine your financial assets and your name.
ID theft can cost you time and money (averaging $691, according to the report) to correct the misdeed and it can ruin your credit enough to prevent you from making major purchases including buying a home.
Companies that manage personal information have improved their ID theft protection measures, but consumers who protect their own personal information is the first line of defense.
Here's what Javelin suggests.
Move your financial transactions online by turning off paper invoices, statements and checks, including paychecks, and replacing them with electronic versions where offered by employers, banks, utilities or merchants. Avoid mailing checks to pay bills or deposit funds in your banking account. Instead, pay bills online and use remote deposit check imaging services on online banking sites.
This effort rubs out the paper trail. Crooks are more likely to steal information on paper, from personal belongings and through telephone calls, rather than online.
Monitor your accounts regularly online at bank and credit card websites. Americans who monitor their accounts online are most likely to uncover suspicious or unauthorized activity early.
Likewise, review your credit information frequently. You can do so three times a year for free at the federally-sanctioned AnnualCreditReport.com by getting one report, from each of the three major credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and Transunion -- in turn, every four months.
Reduce unnecessary access to your personal information wherever possible. For example, don't carry Social Security cards, unused credit cards or checks, and don't leave sensitive documents out in the open.
Never provide sensitive financial information over the phone or Internet, including Social Security numbers, passwords, PINs or account numbers, unless you placed the call directly to a verified and trusted location, such as the number on back of a credit card or statement.
Add your name to the federal Do Not Call registry and direct marketing opt-out lists to reduce solicitations that could be bogus.
Even as overall ID theft has fallen, "phishing," criminals using telecommunications, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and like methods, is on the rise. That's because, as more consumers shift more transactions to secure online services, thieves are becoming more creative on the telephone claiming to represent non-profit and charitable operations.
In the same vein, wireless phone accounts have become the most frequent types of new accounts opened fraudulently by criminals using stolen data. The trend exceeds that of fraudulent new credit cards, loans, checking or savings accounts.
Install and regularly update firewall, browser, anti-spyware, and anti-virus security software on your personal computer, and keep operating systems updated. Updates typically come with spyware, virus and other protections.
Consider placing a credit freeze on your credit report or your child's credit report if you know you won't be using credit for some time. Child ID theft is on the rise because thieves know you and your kid aren't likely to check the child's credit report for some time due to a lack of credit use. Check your state's "credit freeze" law. The cost may be nominal or free. The three credit reporting agencies offer the service for a fee.
If you are an ID theft victim, report it to the police, affected accounts, and call any one of the three credit bureaus to have a fraud alert placed on your account to prevent future infractions as you sort out the mess. Contact one bureau to place a fraud alert on your credit report and that company is required to notify the other two so that they too can place an alert on their versions of your report.
Written by Broderick Perkins